Below is an excerpt from the 5th chapter of my book, The Embodied Playbook: Writing Practices of Student-Athletes. This chapter follows closely on the heels of chapter 4 and offers strategies for working with student-athlete writers. In this chapter, I draw on theories of jazz improvisation, an artistic talent that, like sports, invites the spontaneous coordination of bodies and spaces in line with written text. The first few pages of chapter 5 read, roughly, as follows:
The Jazzy, Creative, Collaborative Writing Practices of College Sports
In his autobiography, the great trumpeter Miles Davis (1989) describes the recording sessions of his 1970 album Bitches Brew, an album heavily inspired by the rock ‘n roll zeitgeist of the 60s with long tracks of frenzied, sonic energy: “What we did on Bitches Brew you couldn’t ever write down for an orchestra to play. That’s why I didn’t write it all out, not because I didn’t know what I wanted; I knew that what I wanted would come out of a process and not some prearranged shit. This session was about improvisation, and that’s what makes jazz so fabulous” (300). Davis’s strong nod toward improvisation over scripted performance recognizes a hallmark of jazz and illustrates the creative, collaborative freedom of jazz. During moments of improvisation, the soloist is simultaneously alone with notes and an instrument yet most commonly a part of a quartet or quintet playing before a live audience. At once, the solo is fluid and capricious yet woven into a tight tapestry of chords and melodies and harmonies. At once, the solo is flowing effortlessly, yet the soloist’s body exerts itself greatly, fingers flying across an instrument, the bounce and tap of the foot in time to the rhythm section. As I quoted in the epigraph, jazz’s emphasis on collaboration and bodily movement to an unfolding text leads James Lincoln Collier (1993) to draw parallels between jazz and athletics. Like athletics, jazz is embodied action where a body in tandem with an instrument delivers written text and where this textual delivery is directly reliant on the physical capabilities of the body. Both athletics and jazz capture mind-body collaborative creation in ever-changing circumstances.
Jazz improvisation happens in a cycle, a fixed form foundation laid first by the rhythm section and then the harmony. The rhythm section—often the bass and drums—set a fix chord progression, and the soloist places moments of improvisational beauty gently set on top of the rhythm. The soloist plays on top of the fixed layer. Without descending too deeply into music theory, to blow a solo fitting with a rhythm changing from number to number, the soloist works within a tight structure such as the twelve-bar or thirty-two bar AABA. Within this structure, improvising can be a variance on a common melody or modal or harmonic improvising. In Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, ethnomusicologist Paul F. Berliner (1994) constructs one of the more capacious discussion of this sonic performance delivered by the musician “spontaneously and intuitively” (2). In his section “Cultivating the Soloist’s Skills,” Berliner describes a soloist’s training: “they formulate melodies by ear, kinetically (by hand), and through abstract visualization in relation to the sounds of each piece’s underlying harmony” (159). This mind-body fusion drives thinking in jazz—to riff on Berliner’s title— and facilitates the learning and performance of improvising. He writes, “the ideas that soloists realize during performance depend as much on the body’s own actions as on the body’s synchronous response to the mind. The body can take momentary control over particular activities . . . while the mind shifts its focus to the next ideas” (190). Because of the importance of the body and mind sharing tasks during cognitive performance, many musicians go to great physical lengths to train, modify, or alter their bodies for performance: training in dance and yoga, practicing relaxation techniques, regulating diet, imbibing in drugs. Berliner writes of one trumpeter who asked a dentist to file down and “slightly separate his own front teeth in the hope that this would ‘free up’ his air stream” (Berliner, 1994, 119).
Scholars across a wide-range of disciplines have molded jazz improvisation into a springboard for harnessing productivity in organizations largely because of jazz’s emphasis on collaborative, bodily creativity . . . In this chapter, I argue the cognitive processes of spatial orientation, haptic communication, and scaffolded situation undergird the learning of scripted plays, but the embodied enactment of these plays is analogous to the characteristics of jazz improvisation Barrett (1998) extends to learning organization and Boquet and Eodice (2008) extend to working with writers. Learning scripted plays looks a whole lot like the jazzy, creative, and collaborative model of learning extended to various organizations.